In my experience it wasn’t rare for a major high to quickly be followed by a crushing defeat, but ordinarily it would be me who was suffering the rapid fall from grace, and it usually wouldn’t come around as suddenly as the swift setback I had witnessed in Aulay’s around an hour after the pub quiz in The Lorne, where I had suffered a small defeat of my own. Three members of the four Unlikely Lads had reunited after the brief flirtation with success two of us had enjoyed a week earlier when we formed a winning alliance with the Bawbags who weren’t away on holiday, and for a while it was looking like our quiz joy might continue when we found ourselves in the lead at the midway point. I was already allowing myself to think ahead to how I could spend the prize of a £25 bar voucher on a second date, even though I had yet to find a woman who would accompany me for the use of the voucher we had previously won. However, our team endured a torrid round of questions on siblings, registering a pitiful return of three points, and the whole thing went downhill from there. It was a lot like the frequent challenges I faced with my own brother, who was always much better equipped for attracting the opposite sex than I was.
Aulay’s was quiet on Wednesday night, much quieter than it apparently had been the night before, when legend has it that an eve of funeral gathering ended with a wild bar brawl. There weren’t more than three patrons in the lounge bar when I walked in, and I was beginning to wonder if the only people who go to the pub on a Wednesday night are those who are lonely. I took a seat at the end of the bar, where there was ample room for me to consider where the evening’s quiz had gone wrong over a beer while I embellished the diminutive barmaid with the story of my bar voucher and how I was hoping to use it to attract a date. In the meantime, a couple who were half-Scottish and half-Australian entered the bar, and they quickly became involved in a conversation with one of the three folks who were there before I was, an older man who had travelled from a nearby island in the Outer Hebrides. It wasn’t long before the new acquaintances were serenading the sparse bar with drunken Scottish lullabies.
Pints of lager, measures of whisky and orders of vodka and Irn-Bru were finding their way to the table in the corner in quick succession, and it wouldn’t be long before the lyrical infused libations were requiring some accompaniment in the form of music. I wasn’t witness to what happened next, but I was able to savour its effect and I could easily picture the scene when the Glasgow born male of the aforementioned couple told the story after the event.
As the couple were sitting at the comfort of their table, their island companion reached into the pocket of his jumper, which was the colour of a Mentos wrapper, for a packet of cigarettes. He shook the cardboard carton like it was a pepper mill, though instead of granulated peppercorns there were around thirteen Silk Cuts tumbling onto the surface of the table, which was wet with pools of Tennent’s Lager. The cigarettes were swimming in rivers of gold while the man from the Outer Hebrides was carefully separating the silver paper lining from the inside of his empty cigarette carton. Neither of the pair was at all sure what he was up to, and it wasn’t any clearer when he withdrew his black comb from his inside pocket. He proceeded to attach the shiny paper to the hair straightening tool, fashioning an unlikely instrument, and he provided the most unlikely backing I had ever heard to a pair of pub singers.
The comb harmonica had a similar sound to that of a duck call, and after a few minutes of the man breathing into the thing, I found myself glancing towards the entrance of the pub, wondering if a flock of ducks might waddle in, and everyone would look at one another in search of the punchline. It was ridiculous, and yet at the same time sublime, and his newfound friends were in rapture to his device, celebrating every note he produced.
The impromptu performance continued for some time, the Glaswegian man singing his folk songs and the islander accompanying him with his musical comb, until the plentiful supply of drinks that the couple had been replenishing him with caught up with the islander. Suddenly the female of the group called out. “He’s being sick on his shoes!” Apparently it was just the vodka and Irn-Bru repeating on him like the two notes his instrument could play, but it was enough to cause some alarm at the table. Within a matter of minutes, the distant islander had gone from the high of being regarded as a hero for his virtuoso instrumental interlude, to the bitter defeat of vomiting on his shoes in the pub. It was the visual equivalent, I thought, of how it would be to watch myself try and talk to a woman.
A scramble for paper towels ensued, and the old man was looking lost as he watched the whole thing unfold around him. The woman wiped the orange fluid from his shoes, which were the black of faded tarmac on a busy town road, and once he had taken some time to compose himself, he slipped the comb, still shrouded on one side by the silver cigarette paper, off the end of the table and began playing it again, as if nothing had ever happened. I couldn’t help but admire him for his resilience and his devotion to the cause, whichever cause breathing into an old comb might be. There had been many a time when I had been sick in a pub and immediately left to go home, albeit I was in the modesty saving surroundings of a public bathroom. This was something I had never witnessed before, and I was struck by how humble it all was. How nice it would be if everybody could handle adversity like this.
Autumn would always arrive like an artist’s stroke on canvas; with wonderous new smells and curious sounds, with exciting hope and it was all so full of colour. All around town things were changing with the season, nothing more so than the leaves on the trees. Amongst the diminishing green, there could be seen different shades of all sorts, from regal gold to burning amber, from aged rust to crisp red. As dusk was settling in over Oban bay, the headlights of cars would whizz by on the Esplanade, looking like fireflies with somewhere to go. And yet, amongst it all, everything still felt blue.
By the penultimate Saturday in October I could no longer be sure if the temperature had taken a significant drop or if the sudden cold feeling around my ears was because I had just been for a hair cut. It had been at least nine-and-a-half weeks since I last had the hairs around my head trimmed, and they were becoming increasingly difficult to fashion into a respectable look. When I first walked into the barber’s shop the couch was almost full, but one of the guys was waiting for his friend in the chair, and besides, we weren’t having our weekly family breakfast at Poppie’s, so I had nothing better to do than read the sports pages of the Daily Star and occasionally feign interest in the Rugby World Cup quarter-final between England and Australia on the old television in the corner whilst waiting my turn.
Nobody else had taken a seat on the couch since I had arrived, and it seemed that this was a theme of the morning. Whilst sitting in the barber’s chair I received a lesson on the economics of cutting men’s hair for a living. “I’m probably fifty quid down today because the rugby is on and there doesn’t seem to be many people coming out,” the barber said to me over the buzz of his clippers as I stared ahead at the blurred reflection of what I assumed was myself in the mirror, but I couldn’t be sure when I wasn’t wearing my glasses. “But on Wednesday I could be fifty up…someone will always need their hair cut.” I was reluctant to nod with a blade so close to my scalp, but I understood what he was saying.
I shuddered each time the barber ran his comb through my hair, though I wasn’t sitting there for very long. “Slip on your glasses and tell me what you think” is a phrase I could imagine being said in many situations, but I had only ever heard it in the barber’s chair. As the barber brushed away the stray hairs from around my collar he admired his own handiwork, proclaiming the hair cut the best he had ever given me. I could see the look of bemusement on my own face when I put my glasses back on over my exposed ears. Does this mean that he hadn’t been doing his best work over all these years? And all those people who had noticed my previous hair cuts, had they only noticed them because they weren’t so good? I couldn’t stop going over those questions in my mind as I was surveying his snipping, struggling to see what was different about it.
A week had passed and I was still settling into my new hair cut when Let’s Make A Scene was cancelled not quite at the last minute, but certainly at the last hour. I had already showered and changed into my suit for my reading, so I carried on to Aulay’s regardless. A sense of awkwardness quickly came over me when I was standing at the bar wearing a brown tweed suit as people funnelled in to watch the big fight on television, and I only really began to feel comfortable later in the night when strays from a Halloween party arrived and I was no longer the only person wearing costume.
The marine biologist barmaid from Aulay’s had been keen to listen to my set at the open mic event, and when she returned to the other side of the bar later on Saturday she arrived with her boyfriend and a friend whose scarf immediately caught my eye. I was in such a rush to compliment her on the neck-warming apparel that I immediately forgot her name when she was introduced to me. Even when I was talking to her, it wasn’t the midnight mascara around her eyes that I was thinking about, but the cashmere around her collar.
I tried to make conversation with the young woman around all of the usual things, and I learned all about her studies and her reasons for moving to Oban, where she had come from and some of the places she had travelled to further her research. But I still couldn’t take my mind off the scarf, and I could tell that things were going awry when I asked her about the hurricane evacuation procedure in Costa Rica. Seemingly people from the coastal areas were moved inland to cramped farmhouses, and it was only a matter of time before she initiated an evacuation procedure of her own. I couldn’t resist asking about the scarf any longer. It was made up of two or three different colours, and I was keen to know her view of what they were.
“What would you say the predominant colour on your scarf is?”
“Purple,” she said, unwilling to elaborate on whether it was lavender, lilac or mauve. Whatever interest I had been able to hold for the girl lasted about as long as a hair cut, and she soon moved into a discussion with my more interesting friend. I never saw the scarf again, and I was left wondering if this was how it felt to be sick on your shoes in the pub. Worst of all, I wasn’t even carrying a comb to overcome my defeat.
The tenth playlist of the year – my Spotify soundtrack to the month of October
For those who don’t have access to Spotify, but do have an interest in the music I have been listening to, the following are my three favourite songs from the past month.
One of my favourite songs by the popular alternative rock band from the 1980s and 90s, R.E.M…
A reminder of how great a song sounds when you haven’t heard it in a while and it sneaks up on you…
The best cover of a song by The Carpenters…